Hawai’i and the Global Fight Against Pesticide Corporations

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On January 17, 1893, a group of American sugar barons and plantation owners, backed by the United States military, overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani of the Kingdom of Hawai’i and imprisoned her in her own palace. The coup led to the dissolving of the Kingdom and its illegal annexation by the U.S. five years later.

How interesting then that on the 123rd anniversary of this day, on January 17, 2016, I led a small group of powerful women across the swinging rope bridge and over the mud trails that lead to my Uncle John’s farm on the island of Kaua’i. Here, we showed them their first ever kalo (taro) farm. In our origin story, kalo is our big brother, the stillborn child who came before us, the kanaka maoli of Hawai’i. We still grow this traditional crop with a lot of love and labor, as part of our struggle to keep our people, our culture, our language, and our sovereignty alive. Jokingly, we call our efforts “dekalonization.”

The women who walked with me were very familiar with this struggle. Each were warriors in their own homelands, fighting for the rights of their people. Sarojeni Rengam, based in Malaysia, is the Director of Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific and she told us about Indigenous land defenders in Malaysia who have been murdered by the militia because of their resistance to development of their traditional lands. Marrian Bassey Orovwuje from Nigeria came to us as a representative of Friends of the Earth International, and talked about land grabbing in many African countries by multinational corporations, and the collusion of the national governments and law enforcement. Eva Schürmann from Switzerland talked about the chemical giant Syngenta and how their products are poisoning people all over the world, and Adelita San Vicente from Mexico talked about the Mexican people’s resistance to the genetic engineering of corn, their traditional and sacred food crop.

Adelita’s story reminded me of our own Hawaiian resistance to the genetic engineering of kalo. We successfully won that battle, but the greater war continues to rage, with vast tracts of Hawaiian land being grabbed up by Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, DuPont/Pioneer, and BASF to plant their genetically-engineered (GE) crops. These companies collectively own more than 1,000 GE test plots spread over thousands of acres in Hawai’i, leaving even less land and water for the growing of food in a “state” that imports 90 percent of its food and is already so food insecure.

One of the most controversial parts of this giant genetic experiment on Hawai’i is the vast amount of pesticide use associated with these crops. The vast majority of these crops are designed to either express (contain) a pesticide, or to be “resistant” to one, which means that they drive up pesticide use. Agricultural economist Dr. Charles Benbrook has estimated that GE crops increased pesticide use by 527 million pounds between 1996 and 2011.

What this means “on the ground” is that some days the crops growing on my island are sprayed multiple times a day, and often drift into neighboring homes and fields, poisoning workers and families nearby. My own kids have developed health problems from this pesticide drift, including headaches, respiratory infections and asthma. In a study concluded earlier this month, they found more than 36 different pesticides in my daughter’s body, many of them associated with impacts on her health and brain development.

Over the last few years, many people—Native and non-Native—have risen up in opposition to the pesticide/GE companies and their harmful practices. We have built a powerful people’s movement from the ground up, and through it won several new health-protective rules across the islands.

Unsurprisingly though, the companies have tied all of these up in the courts, so we are left struggling to protect our keiki (children) and our aina (land/ecosystems) from the same dangers as before. This is why some of us are taking our struggle internationally—connecting with Native Americans and Maori, the Native people of Aotearoa (also called New Zealand). As part of this international strategy, some of my colleagues and I also flew to Switzerland last year to participate in the Syngenta shareholders’ meeting in an attempt to hold them accountable for the impact of their harmful pesticide products.

Despite the immensity of these obstacles—the immense political power and influence wielded by the pesticide and GE corporations and the damage that has already been done to our soil, water, and ecosystems—I remain hopeful that we will regain the right and the resources to live, learn, eat and grow food in our traditional ways. Many of our children are now being educated in traditional schools, learning Hawaiian language and culture so that they may grow into aina warriors with a deep sense of their kuleana (one’s sense of responsibility and accountability).

Though the Nation of Hawai’i has lost many things, she is still strong because her people are still here, and we are not going anywhere.

M?lia Kahale?inia Chun is from the mokupuni of Kaua?i and the ahupua’a of Wailuanuiahoano. She is the mother of 2 daughters, Lei?ohu and La?akea, and for the past 14 years has dedicated her life to providing cultural enrichment opportunities for the keiki of Kaua?i with the intent of raising their goals and aspirations and inspire them to become leaders in their community. M?lia is also the Program Coordinator of the Na Pua No‘eau Program at Kaua?i Community College, University of Hawai?i.